Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A "Natural" Affinity for Powerlessness



Emma over at The Chronic Meditator has a post that really resonated with me this morning. Much of it is about her relationship with her mother, and the patterns that are passed from one generation to another. However, in the middle of it is this broader section addressing powerlessness:

I've done a lot of volunteer work with refugees in the past, and am still involved in researching refugee claims. This kind of work means that I listen to asylum seekers stories about what happened in their home country (usually a country we wouldn't be holidaying in, like Iraq, or the Congo), and then I try to find supporting information to corroborate their claims.

I end up reading a lot about life under dictatorships. It struck me this week, while I was meditating, that I've always had a natural affinity and empathy towards the stories of people who've lived under a dictatorship. I then realised that this affinity resulted from the feelings I felt growing up.

If I had to put this feeling into a few short phrases, it was the feeling that it didn't matter what I felt, it didn't matter what I did - there was some authority figure standing above me that was going to control what happened. It was the feeling of complete powerlessness, a 'knowing' that there was no use resisting and no use hoping for something different because I had no control over what would happen.


Much of this is about my life, too. I have spent more than a decade working with immigrants and refugees who felt powerless in their homelands, and often continue to feel some powerless here in their new country. "Empowerment" is something I have seriously been about as I've worked with students to develop language skills, knowledge about American culture and society, and social action through lobbying government officials, protesting, and letter writing. I've never been just an English teacher, and part of the reason is that I don't particularly like powerlessness, and the folks I work with experience a lot of it.

Beyond this, though, I have often felt powerlessness at the workplace. I have never been in a leadership position, and frequently have found that my experience, ideas, and approaches are either taken as threats by leadership, and actively are resisted against, or are considered "not realistic," and are passively worn down by leadership until I drop them. This has happened at multiple workplaces, across different kinds of work - so I know the narrative pretty well by now.

Digging further, it's easy for me to see how much of my childhood was riddled with powerlessness. This is probably true of most children just because they are children, but if you add an unstable family, the near death of a mother, a divorce, a father who wasn't available emotionally for a large chuck of time, and the early death of a grandfather who had been a father figure, it's hard not to view the world - from the eyes of a child - as being a place where you have no power.

Now, at the absolute level, power and powerlessness are empty. They don't hold any water so to speak. And neither do their lesser cousins control and no control. And yet when I look at my life, I can see how much tussle there has been between all of these - how I have sought to have power, to embody power in a healthy way (an I'll be different that those who have held power over me kind of way), and also how much effort I have put in to avoiding powerlessness, and banishing it when it does come.

While visiting relatives in Michigan, I noticed how often I simply withheld information about my life, not wanting to really be there fully and openly. In part, I felt it wouldn't be fair to inflict on folks I rarely see stories about the various challenges I am having right now. But also it was about self-protection, knowing that my life and way of thinking is pretty different from most of my extended family. I didn't want to have arguments about my spiritual life, or my work with immigrants, or my political views, or my muddled romantic life. I wanted to keep control of the narratives I have, even if that meant shutting down opportunities to learn.

Perhaps you do this, too. Shutting down opportunities to learn and grow because you want to maintain control, and keep out anything that feels like powerlessness. It seems like a pretty commonplace approach, one that's operating at a macro-level even in warfare, power-hungry governments, corporate consolidation, and various forms of systemic oppression.

In some ways, sensing how common this pattern is lightens it a little bit. However, it's also kind of depressing that we humans are so entrenched in this kind of behavior and thinking.

For myself, I'm convinced that I am "in training" to reshape the entire way I experience power and powerlessness. It's already happening to some degree, but you know, it's kind of tough going. Like those days when you have to return to your breath after wandering off a hundred times during a single meditation period, I feel the same about this whole power/powerlessness thing.

It's easy to tell others, and yourself - just meditate more. Just drop your stories and help others more. Just do this or that. Easy.

However, the longer I live and practice, the more I am convinced what while the tools and teachings available are pretty much the same for everyone, each of us really is going to digest this life completely uniquely. That may sound like a totally obviously statement, but check yourself when you are with someone else, and tempted to offer advice on some situation.

I remember a few years ago having a lot of students running off to get jobs in slaughterhouses. Miserable work that doesn't even pay very well anymore, and is part of long cycle of exploitation of both humans and animals. I wanted better for my students and still do. And yet, to this day, I recall a short conversation I had with a co-worker who had been a refugee herself many years ago. As I told her of my frustration and disappointment with what was happening, she agreed with me, and then said "Everyone goes their own way, no matter what you do."

That conversation changed the way I related to my students. I stopped trying so hard to "empower" them to locate a decent job, stick in school as long as possible, and perhaps challenge the system along the way. Instead, I began to listen more to what they wanted, how they felt, and how they were experiencing life in their new country. I found natural avenues to discuss things like injustice, and the challenged social history of our nation, offering information and conversation that might actually have supported the next steps for some of those in my classes - instead of just being some interesting information that helped them learn the language, but ultimately did nothing else for them because it was imposed.

I'm beginning to see how power and powerlessness are intimately tied to how you listen to the world, and then respond to it. That when you have the patience to pay attention and take things in, you manifest healthy power, but also recognize that you really don't have any power at all at the same time. This is a different kind of "powerlessness," one that stems from understanding that you can't control others, nor do you really need to.

In a way, we all have a natural affinity for powerlessness, but we get attached to the wrong view of it. I, for one, am working to flip that view on it's head.

1 comment:

Petteri Sulonen said...

Good story.

I tend to look at things through the lens of power relations. They shape just about everything we do, whether we want it or not, or admit it or not.